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Seeding the Future of Bio Tech in NH

Published Tuesday Feb 19, 2019

Author Matthew J. Mowry


From discoveries of new drugs and treatment therapies to the lofty goal of becoming the global hub for tissue and organ manufacturing, NH’s biotech and biomed sector is poised to become a major economic driver for the state. And NH’s colleges and universities will play a key role in the success of this fledgling industry.

In an unprecedented move last year, the Legislature approved incentives for regenerative manufacturing businesses to move or launch here, including a 10-year tax holiday and an offer to pay off student debt for anyone who works for such a company (for at least five years).

The Manchester-based Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI), a nonprofit that develops and supports large-scale manufacturing and commercialization of engineered tissues, organs and tissue-related technologies, prompted these extraordinary measures. To accomplish its goals, ARMI brings together engineering, life science, computer science, materials science, manufacturing and workforce development experts.

Colleges and universities in NH will act as research hubs for the emerging industry and train the sector’s workforce. For example, University of NH Manchester, a member of ARMI, developed a biotech major to help supply the workforce. Federal dollars are already coming to NH’s education sector in recognition of the need to build the right kind of knowledge base.

NH EPSCoR & NH BioMade
Chief among the entities garnering federal support are NH EPSCoR and NH Center for Multiscale Modeling and Manufacturing of Biomaterials (NH BioMade). NH EPSCoR is the state agency that directs federal investments to support scientific research and STEM education in NH. It was recently awarded a $20 million National Science Foundation grant to fund NH BioMade, an initiative to advance the production of biomaterials.

To do that, NH BioMade will invest in 11 new faculty members across three institutions to create statewide education and training initiatives. The idea is to increase the number of students trained for advanced manufacturing in biomaterials. The goal is also to provide opportunity for research internships and “work-based learning opportunities” for high school and college students.

Through NH BioMade, Brad Kinsey, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at UNH and interim director of the John Olson Advanced Manufacturing Center, will lead a team of scientists and engineers at UNH and Dartmouth College to conduct research on biomaterials. Education and workforce training efforts will be led by the Leitzel Center for Mathematics, Science and Engineering Education at UNH, in partnership with the Community College System of NH, Keene State College and UNH Manchester.

In addition, NH BioMade will establish an Industrial and State Partnerships Board, which will connect stakeholders in academic, industrial, nonprofit and government sectors. “The whole point is to make sure we are closely connected to produce research that is useful” and provide students with the right training, says Kevin Gardner, associate state director of NH EPSCoR.

In 2015, NH-INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) received an $18.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to expand biomedical research and training in NH by funding researchers at NH institutions. This was NH-INBRE’s second NH IDeA grant, which funds technical training programs, supports facility improvements, and sponsors employment in research labs for undergraduates.

It is led by UNH and the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and includes as partners: Colby-Sawyer College, Franklin Pierce University, Keene State College, New England College, Plymouth State University, Saint Anselm College and the Community College System of NH.

Among the programs it supports is the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (ISURF), which provides a 10-week summer research experience for undergraduates pursuing research careers or graduate studies in biomedical sciences.

Spurring More Commercialization at Dartmouth
While Dartmouth College is a major player in these initiatives, its greatest contribution to the growing biotech industry is the companies that have developed from research conducted by faculty.

Tillman Gerngross, an expert in protein and glycoprotein engineering and a professor at Dartmouth, is among the more prolific biotech entrepreneurs, having cofounded GlycoFi (which sold to Merck in 2006 for $400 million), Adimab (an antibody-discovery company in Lebanon that has attracted more than $350 million in venture capital), as well as biotech firms Arsanis, Avitide and Alector.

Tillman Gerngross, a professor at Dartmouth College, is a prolific biotech entrepreneur, having founded a number of biotech firms. Courtesy photo.

Gerngross says Dartmouth’s success with commercializing research is due to the talent it has attracted.

In an effort to spur even more entrepreneurial activity, the university launched a unique policy in 2016, which grants faculty full intellectual property rights in exchange for 4 percent founders’ equity in the company. Gerngross is the architect of the policy.

Gerngross says the policy makes it easier for faculty to pursue commercial opportunities. “What normally ensues is a negotiation between the company and the college. It’s an intense process that puts people who should be cooperative and pits them against one another,” he says of negotiations at other universities. But, he notes, Dartmouth’s approach aligns with the interests of both faculty and the college.

However, Gerngross warns that success should not be measured by the number of companies a college spins out, but rather by the number of people those ventures employ and the amount of venture capital they attract. He says while NH’s general business climate makes it a favorable place to start a business, the lack of venture capital makes it challenging. He says of Adimab’s $350 million in VC funding, only about $5 million came from NH investors.

UNH Ramps Up Investments
Dartmouth is far ahead of the state’s flagship public research university, UNH, when it comes to commercializing research. But UNH is hoping to increase its entrepreneurial activity. Jan Nisbet, senior vice provost for research for UNH, says the school had a late start compared to other institutions, having waited until 2004 before hiring staff to focus on commercializing research.

“In 2009, we had $200,000 in royalty revenue, and today we have over a million,” Nisbet says. The university sees investment in biotech research as potentially having a big payoff down the road.

Justine Stadler, director of partnerships and impact at UNH, says the university wants to be viewed by businesses as a partner in bringing their innovations to market. “We have the instrumentation that industry can use,” she says, as well as the experts to conduct research for them. UNH recently launched, which allows businesses to easily search for and connect with experts.

UNH has also been introducing new degree programs and courses to meet the needs of the biotech and regenerative manufacturing industries. Nisbet says UNH began a bioengineering program for undergraduates a few years ago and is now developing masters programs in biotech and bio-innovation.

Both programs will be targeted to industry professionals who need to move from a bachelor’s to a master’s degree, Nisbet says. The new masters programs are expected to launch in the fall.

That’s not the only area where there’s opportunity. The UNH School of Law is creating a certificate program covering regulatory and ethical issues involved in the biotech industry, such as whether skin developed in a lab should be patented, Nisbet says.

The campus itself may see some changes. Built in the 1950s, the current science hall is woefully out of date, she says, adding that when some prospective students interested in bioscience and bioengineering tour the facility, they decide to attend school elsewhere. In response, UNH wants to make major infrastructure improvements to the building. Nisbet says, “To do the research, we need new lab facilities.”

But the $80 million needed for updated labs and state-of-the-art instrumentation doesn’t grow on trees.

So the school will ask for 30 percent of that amount in the next state budget; UNH and the University System of NH would pay the remainder. The university hopes to break ground on the project this summer.

Gardner of EPSCoR adds, “Legislators have seen it and said they had no idea how outdated these classrooms are.”

Great Bay Community College
The Community College System is also playing an important role to support ARMI and the state’s biotech ecosystem. Great Bay Community College, located at Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth, offers associate degree programs in bioengineering, biological science and biotechnology. “The biotech lab has a quarter-million-dollars’ worth of equipment,” says Deb Audino, coprogram coordinator and professor in the biotech program. She adds that at any given point, Great Bay has 75 to 100 students training for biotech careers.

Great Bay’s biomanufacturing course is also listed in UNH’s course catalog, and currently 17 UNH students are enrolled. “Every fall we fill the course with UNH bioengineering and chemical engineering students,” says Audino, who also plays a role in the ARMI project by working with high school career/technical education centers to educate them about the growing regenerative medicine industry in NH.

Biotech professor Deb Audino, left, works with Great Bay Community College students Erin Kelley, center, and Luciana Custer. Photo by Matthew J. Mowry.

Students earning an associate degree at Great Bay can easily transfer to a four-year program at UNH and then pursue advanced degrees. “We have worked with UNH on clear transfer pathways for Great Bay which have now been extended to the Community College System,” says Leslie Barber, professor of biology at Great Bay. Barber is also the liaison to UNH.

Barber is also the principal investigator for the community colleges for NH-INBRE. “I get about $100,000 a year for the Community College System to support undergraduate research and pay students fellowship money” for working on research projects with faculty at partner institutions across the state.

Great Bay also works with businesses to provide customized training, including a recent training program for 200 Portsmouth-based Lonza Biologics employees, Audino says. In addition, it offers a biotechnology certificate program for professionals who already earned a degree but need an advanced certificate.

“We have a really nice network in place to build the pipeline that ARMI is looking for,” Barber says.

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